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Comings and Goings in Eastern Kentucky

Part 4 of a 4-part Forefront series examining eastern Kentucky's transition away from a coal-centric economy. Read the series


Eastern Kentucky is challenged with demographic issues as it tries to attract and retain a more diverse mix of jobs.

What do births, deaths, and migration have in common? They’re the only things that change a region’s population. But why is it important to track and understand population change in a region?

Road in Versailles, Kentucky. Photo courtesy of Christine Mino Williams.

Road in Versailles, Kentucky. Photo courtesy of Christine Mino Williams.​

A school superintendent, for example, may need to know if a district’s population is growing or shrinking in order to ensure there are enough teachers. A site locator may be tasked by a chain of stores to find new locations, so she’ll want to know how the region’s population is changing in order to ensure enough customers. Or a group of councilmembers may need to understand how the size of the tax base is changing in order to update the community’s budget appropriately.

The issues these examples demonstrate are especially important in eastern Kentucky, which is in a state of flux as it seeks to reorient its coal-centric economy. The loss of coal mining jobs has sent ripples throughout the region, one that has struggled with its share of economic and social issues over decades.

Population change in eastern Kentucky: The long and short runs

Let’s start by examining the bigger and longer-term picture when it comes to population trends in the region, say, for the past 115 years. That’s a big chunk of time, but it provides an idea of the broader changes taking place. Looking across this time span, a few things stand out:

  1. The United States’ population increased fourfold at a strong, consistent rate.
  2. Eastern Kentucky’s periods of population growth tend to coincide with booms in coal production, but that impact has lessened as coal mining has become more automated.
  3. The rest of Kentucky saw a population that doubled at a steady, albeit slower rate than that of the US.
A long-run look at population trends in eastern Kentucky.

Now zoom in to look at the short run, the past 25 years from 1990, the peak in eastern Kentucky coal production, to 2015. Eastern Kentucky saw stagnant population levels, which began to decline in the last few years as the bottom dropped out of the coal industry. On the other hand, the US and the rest of Kentucky saw positive growth at similar rates.

Digging into the details

Births and deaths

Otherwise known as “natural increase,” the difference between the number of live births and the number of deaths is calculated annually down to the county level by the US Census Bureau’s Population Estimates Program (PEP). The data are based on birth and death certificates provided by the National Center for Housing Statistics. For the past 35 years, the average rate of natural increase per year has been dropping dramatically in eastern Kentucky. In the 1980s, the region averaged more than 4,600 more births than deaths per year; but by the 2010s, deaths began outpacing births on average. Calculating a birth-to-death ratio (births divided by deaths) allows us to compare eastern Kentucky to the rest of the state and to the US. While all regions have seen a decline in the ratio, eastern Kentucky’s is the largest, dipping to below 1.00 (deaths outpacing births).

The birth-to-death ratio is declining faster in eastern Kentucky.

Region 2010–2015 Change from the 1980s
Eastern Kentucky0.99-0.58
Rest of Kentucky1.37-0.20
US1.54-0.27

Comings and goings

In order to understand exactly how much migration is occurring as well as where people are coming from and going to, a good place to start is reviewing data from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

From 1995 to 2011, total net migration between eastern Kentucky and different states was positive as more people moved to eastern Kentucky than away from it: a net gain of around 1,300 people per year. However, from 2011 to 2014, a period that coincides with the recent decline of the coal industry, net migration became negative to the tune of -1,100 people per year.

Recently, more people are leaving eastern Kentucky for other states.

A closer look at net migration rates between individual counties from 2011 to 2014 demonstrates that in terms of total flow, the vast majority of migration occurred either within Kentucky or between Kentucky and states sharing its border. Eastern Kentucky had the greatest net loss to Fayette County, Kentucky, home to the fast-growing city of Lexington. Conversely, eastern Kentucky had the greatest net gain from Wayne County, West Virginia, where preliminary numbers suggest that natural resource and mining employment has declined 67 percent from 2011 to September 2015 (a loss of 604 jobs). One final point is that the counties with the highest total migration (in-migration plus out-migration) are counties within eastern Kentucky. In other words, the majority of migration in eastern Kentucky is movement within eastern Kentucky counties. (Note that the IRS does not disclose data for counties in which fewer than 10 observations occurred, a circumstance which means some county-to-county migration is excluded in a given year.)

Who’s migrating

The final piece involves looking at migrant demographics, including education and income levels and employment status. Data from the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey’s (ACS’s) 5-year county-to-county migration files suggest clear differences when comparing movers to eastern Kentucky with movers to the rest of the state. Of the people moving to eastern Kentucky from other states, a majority fall into at least one of the following categories when comparing eastern Kentucky to the rest of Kentucky, respectively:

  • Have a high school education or less (64 percent versus 38 percent)
  • Earn less than $25,000 per year (47 percent versus 24 percent)
  • Are not in the labor force (52 percent versus 33 percent)
  • Haven’t worked in a year or longer (42 percent versus 25 percent)

In other words, people who move to eastern Kentucky from other states tend to be less educated, have lower incomes, and/or be out of the labor force.

Tying it all together

There are 3 major takeaways in this analysis of population and migration trends in eastern Kentucky.

Eastern Kentucky is shedding population through a combination of out-migration and deaths that are outpacing births, circumstances that have accelerated as the coal industry has declined. But even though eastern Kentucky’s population is declining, people are still entering the region, and a significant number of them are not working. This detail underscores the importance of attracting new jobs to and cultivating existing jobs and entrepreneurship within the region, particularly as the elimination of coal-related jobs continues. To this end, the state’s initiative to construct a broadband network in eastern Kentucky could help the region to diversify its job opportunities.

A large number of the people coming into the region from other states have a high school diploma or less, further underscoring the need for jobs that don’t require a college degree yet pay a decent wage. Jobs that can be obtained via certificate training are one option (though many of these, too, require a high school diploma or General Education Development certificate). Financial support for such training could come from a pool of federal dollars called the Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) Plus initiative, mentioned in part 3 of Forefront’s 4-part series on eastern Kentucky. This $68.5 million fund is earmarked to help coal-dependent communities diversify their economies and retrain their workforces.

Finally, however the region moves forward, doing so will take a concerted effort from policymakers and stakeholders working together toward the same or similar goals. It’s evident through this look at population and migration trends that the region is still seeking its equilibrium.

Sum and substance: The eastern Kentucky population is declining overall, but those who are entering the region are often poorly educated, low-wage earners, and/or not in the labor force, circumstances which are putting an additional strain on already-burdened local resources.

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